The Incredible Shrinking Audience?

A topic of perennial angst among arts administrators is the graying and shrinking of audiences. (By "shrinking," I mean diminishing in numbers, though I suppose some patrons are becoming physically smaller as they gray). While those of us in the culture racket have been deluged by scores of articles and reports on the topic, two recent stories offer some interesting, and somewhat more hopeful perspectives:

A new LA Times article by writer Dianne Haithman, "The Ageless Audience," kicks off in rollicking fashion with our worst nightmares:

The audience for live classical music, theater and dance is, like, dying--OMG! They're sitting in the dark in the concert hall or theater, aging so fast that their gray hair will be white by intermission. And someday soon, the last of the bunch -- a doddering sourpuss who writes letters to his local newspaper with a fountain pen -- will keel over in his velvet seat, done in by the effort of yelling "Brava!" at a plus-sized soprano.

Accurate scenario? Or has the impending demise of the audience been overstated? While the average age of audiences has been creeping upwards, the article posits that there may be a "new gray" in the wings ready to step in and fill the seats. Maybe the problem ain't so bad.

An online Wall Street Journal article "The Unsung Success of Live Classical Music" tackles the same topic with a focus on ... well look at the title and the following extract:

The heralding of the demise of classical music is based on flimsy evidence. The number of concert venues, summer festivals, performing ensembles and overall performances in classical music and opera has increased exponentially over the last four decades. There are currently nearly 400 professional orchestras in America, according to the League of American Orchestras, while 30 years ago there were 203. There are up to 500 youth orchestras, up from 63 in 1990. The number of orchestra concerts performed annually in the U.S. has risen 24% in the past decade, to 37,000. Ticket-sale income from orchestra performances grew almost 18%, to $608 million, between the 2004-'05 and 2005-'06 seasons.

After this cheery news (and remarkable set of stats), the article goes on to examine some reasons why we may harbor misperceptions about the health of classical music--with analysis that traipses to Asia and Venezuela, and from the late-19th century to the age of the iPod. Of course, the quote cites supply-side growth of classical music. If I remember my basic economics (and who does?), there should be a demand curve angling upwards to keep things chugging along. I could say that the problem may be one of oversupply, but that would be heretical.

Perhaps the question of aging audiences is one we should put on the backburner for a bit. I'm not alone in wondering what's going to happen to audience turnout this season given the state of our crappy economy and our collective obsession with the election season. Are the seats in Portland's venues wide enough to accommodate audience members who happen to be wearing barrels? For the sake of full disclosure and proper credit, I was pointed to these articles by the weekly Cultural Policy Listserv hosted by Americans for the Arts. This free e-publication provides an easily digestible summary of the week's top cultural news stories, allowing the reader to appear slightly more erudite and informed than may be warranted (like me).

No comments: